Finding the intersection between interest, ability, and autism!


I have been repeating the ‘presume competence’ mantra all year and, as a result, I have been working to create lessons that are:

  1. high interest
  2. relevant to the student
  3. accessible to the student
  4. age-appropriate
  5. related to the general education curriculum (adapted from books/materials/topic that the general education classes use or addresses an essential element of the standards)

This is not easy. It takes a lot of creativity, time and effort to develop meaningful lessons that meet the criteria. Sometimes I can’t meet all of the criteria, but I think students benefit from the attempt even if I fall a bit short.

One of my students this year is both very smart and very autistic. He doesn’t perform well with academic or communication tasks unless he is motivated and interested in the material. I allowed him to choose a book to study out of a field of 5-6 high interest teen novels. He chose J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I have been working to develop visuals/summaries for the student to use alongside the book, along with worksheets that target the student’s IEP goals. I will include examples of both to download below. The student listens to the book using Learning Ally while following along with the text. Occasionally, I will read a chapter to him. I also supplement the chapters with clips from the movie.

hp ch 2

Sample summary, including spelling/AAC words and visuals of the characters.

I have been pleased with the student’s reactions to the novel study so far. He continues to show interest in the book–if he sees me working on the summaries or worksheets, he will often pace behind me to monitor what I am doing!

If you would like to include adapted books in your curriculum for students with disabilities, you don’t have to recreate the wheel like I am doing. There are websites available that offer adapted books in a variety of formats. One such website is through the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities and can be found here: . Make sure you preview the books before you assign them, since some are better than others.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

HP worksheets

HP summary


Familiarizing Students (and Staff! And Parents!) With a Core Vocabulary


I wanted to share some simple worksheets I created for students, staff, and parents to familiarize themselves a bit more with the core vocabulary on the students’ AAC devices. I recently had parent-teacher conferences and, with most of my students using AAC, I stressed that the student needs to use the device at home as well as at school.

After the parents protested by explaining that they didn’t need to use it at home because they can understand the student without it, I emphasized the importance of preparing them for the adult service world and that the student had the right to be understood by more people! I also appealed to the parents’ hearts, explaining that I knew without a doubt that all of the students had more to say than they were currently able to with their vocalizations and/or devices. We can all improve!

After hearing that, all parents agreed that they need to incorporate the AAC device more at home. The biggest concern, however, was that the parent had no idea how to use the device or where anything was. I had one parent explain that when he is trying to show his son where an item is, he always just opened the keyboard and typed the word out. This was frustrating to the student, who had poor spelling ability, and prevented the parent from learning to navigate the vocabulary.

I showed the parents the ‘Find Word’ feature that is available in many of the WordPower vocabularies and also assured the parents that you need to learn how the vocabularies are set up and, when you get the gist of the organization method, it will get a lot easier!

I do a lot of activities in the classroom to help students and staff better know their way around their core vocabularies. These activities cannot stand in isolation—students will also need to be explicitly taught through modeling and other structured activities what the words mean and how to use them functionally. However, they do meet the goal of helping people learn where to find words quickly and how the system is organized. Whenever I complete activities like these in the classroom, I send them home as “homework” for parents to complete as well!

AAC grammar hunt 1 AAC scavenger hunt 1

These worksheets are organized as scavenger hunts. The first scavenger hunt is focused on categories and the second is focused more on simple grammar. You can download the worksheets in PDF format here: AAC scavenger hunts

Happy hunting!

Classroom Environment for Students with Autism and Other Low-Incidence Disabilities Part Two: One Year Later


New school year, new students, new goals. My classroom structure and schedule has changed this year as students and their needs change. I often stop and reflect on what I am doing: Am I maintaining the status quo because it is easier and within my comfort zone, or am I maintaining the status quo because it continues to meet student needs?

When I asked myself that question as I set up for the year, I realized that maintaining the status quo in its entirety would be entirely for the benefit of my assistants and me. I decided to make some changes in order to better meet student needs.

The primary reason that I made the changes that I will describe is that I am reacting to an influx of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) users. To meet their communication and literacy goals, I have to incorporate many more language exercises. I have tried my best to strike a balance between independence and providing adequate communication opportunities. Social group activities have also been incorporated in order to teach and practice social skills and social communication.

Another reason for the change is that my school started a Digital Learning Initiative. Each student in the building received a Chromebook and I wanted to incorporate the technology meaningfully for my students.

Morning Meeting:

In order to facilitate communication and practice conversational turn-taking, we have a morning meeting at the beginning of each school day.

morning meeting

We start with a turn-taking conversational exchange. I started doing a new question each day, but it quickly became obvious that we needed much more repetition. Now we are practicing the same question for an entire week. This gives us an opportunity to practice other skills that are relevant to appropriate conversation, such as facing your communication partner and using appropriate volume.

Next, each student ‘checks in.’ We are currently using a version of the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers. Each student and staff member ‘checks in’ by describing how they are feeling and what “zone” they are in. Staff members model that we are not always in the “green zone” and that is A-OK by placing themselves in other zones and describing why they are feeling that way.

After we check in, we discuss any special activities that are happening that day. These can include students who are going to an off-campus job, community trips, holidays, student or staff special family events, etc. We usually have at least 3-4 ‘special’ things happening on a daily basis. Students are encouraged to share their own news using their devices through sentence starters.


Schedules look a lot different this year. All students are currently using a checklist-style homeroom schedule to navigate their homeroom activities. Homeroom activities include Chromebook tasks such as typing personal information into Google Forms or spending time on a website working on academic skills.

homeroom checklist update

Most students access their daily activity schedule on their Chromebook. Some students type their own schedule using the application Wunderlist. Non-readers use the extension Read & Write by Google to read the next activity to them.

Wunderlist screen shot

Other students access their schedules on The idea of this website is great, but there are some glitches on the Chromebook. If the student closes the lid or the Chromebook goes to ‘sleep,’ then the student needs to log in all over again the schedule starts all the way back at the top. That being said, it is still the best web-based picture scheduler that I have found up to this point. Students are able to manipulate it independently when it is working well!

go vizzle schedule screenshot

Off-Campus Jobs

In previous years, I have added off-campus jobs on to students’ daily schedules. This year, I left them off and instead I am discussing them during the ‘anything special’ portion of Homeroom. I am also assigning a time to those activities. This way, students practice being mindful of the actual time on the clock (or period in the school day) rather than simply following the sequence of activities on their schedule. This also gives me more freedom throughout the day to let one activity go long or cut another one short without it throwing off the schedule of students who have several time-dependent activities.

It also gives students practice with leaving activities in the middle when necessary. Some students with autism find it very difficult to disengage from something they are working on without completing it. Unfortunately, however, this is a fact of life! Practicing this every once in a while will help the student cope with these unavoidable schedule changes.

Afternoon Meeting

At the end of the day, we come together again for our afternoon meeting. Students complete the Daily Buzz sheet from the core materials on the Unique Learning System. This sheet includes cloze sentences for what the student ate for lunch, jobs the student accomplished, and how the day was overall. It also gives students the opportunity to use describing activities to rate different parts of their day.

After the Daily Buzz sheet, we discuss how each student did using the Class Dojo. We discuss different pro-social and anti-social behaviors that we saw during the day, emphasizing the positives.

class dojo screen shot

If a student has had an especially wonderful day, I offer them a treat. If the whole class has done well, then we play a favorite dance song and have a dance party!

More Communication and Social Activities!

Another change has been a major increase in communication and social group activities! We have been doing AAC scavenger hunts, playing Tic Tac Talk, practicing core words and lots more to help our AAC users develop their communication skills. I am hoping to focus on these activities in another post. If you want to check out some activities right now, I recommend the blog over at . Their blog is amazing!

Like what you see? Comments, questions, or suggestions? Leave them in a comment!

Miss Part One? Check it out here.

My Favorite Free Chromebook Apps and Extensions for the Special Education Classroom


Because my self-contained special education classroom is located within one of the highest-performing high schools in the state, I am sometimes afforded unique opportunities. This year, my school is participating in a Digital Learning Initiative and, as a result, each of my student has been issued a Chromebook.

At first, there was some discussion about whether  students with the most significant disabilities would be included in the initiative. Actually, discussion isn’t the best descriptor…the truth is, no one seemed to know what was supposed to happen with those students. Obviously, our students with disabilities might not be able to take full advantage of the benefits of the Chromebook. Some commented that they wouldn’t be able to use them independently and another device, such as an iPad, might be more appropriate.

In the end, the decision was made through inaction. All students were to receive a device at registration and so each of my students has a Chromebook for this year.

We have been in session for less than a month, but here are some of my favorite (free!) apps/extensions for the Chrome browser so far.



YouTweak– YouTweak lets you personalize YouTube  to some extent. I use YouTweak to hide suggestions from the subscriptions page and redirect to the subscriptions page. Doing this allows me some limited control over what master-clickers have access to. This will NOT prevent typists from searching for their favorite videos, but it is great for trying to rein in those high school students who, on their own, would pass their time watching Teletubbies or Sesame Street. Instead, you can help them subscribe to some age-appropriate channels that they are also interested in. Some of our favorite subscriptions so far are The Slow-Mo Guys, Devin SuperTramp, and the oddly hypnotic drawings of Heather Rooney.


AdBlock (or AdBlock Plus)– AdBlock does exactly what it sounds like. It blocks some advertisements from loading on different websites. This allows websites to load more quickly and also limits distractions.It also reduces those problem areas on websites that, if you accidentally click on them, takes you to the advertisers’ site to make a purchase. This great for everyone (except the advertisers)!

play timer for kids

Playtimer for Kids – I. Love. This. Extension.! The Play-Timer for Kids is designed for parents to limit their kids’ screentime. I love it because I can assign a certain number of minutes on an educational website. For example, my students have Chromebook time each day during Homeroom. I can set the Play timer for ten minutes and it will play a relaxing chime sound and display a ‘Time’s Up!’ banner when the timer goes off. Easy to set and use!

read and write

Read & Write for Google – Teachers get a free premium subscription to Read & Write for Google, but students can also access some of the great features of this extension. After their free 30-day trial of Read & Write, students can continue to have most websites read aloud to them. Although some sites can be kind of glitchy, it should work wherever you see the purple puzzle piece.


budget happy

Budget Happy– Budget Happy is a website that students can use to track how much money they have. My students often have goals to manage a small personal budget and this allows students with cognitive disabilities to do so fairly easily. You can make this as complex or as simple as you would like by adding envelopes with different amounts of money.

Budget Happy screen shot

I typically have students use two envelopes–one practice and one for their community money–and then they can use their receipts when we return from community trips to enter in the amount spent.


Wunderlist- Wunderlist is an amazingly easy app that readers can use to manage a daily schedule. I have ‘master schedules’ laminated for each day of the week, and each morning students can type in each item on their to-do list. Make sure you change the settings so each item gets added to the bottom of the list rather than the top as you type it in. As students finish each item on their list, they click the checkbox and get rewarded with a satisfying ding! I have yet to find a scheduler for non-readers that I like as well.

That’s all for now! I’m sure I will discover more and more useful apps/extensions as the year goes on.Remember, you can still take advantage of these apps and extensions even if you do not have Chromebooks. They should all work within the Chrome browser on any computer.

Attributes Game for AAC users


Many of my students use AAC devices in order to communicate and require a lot of practice to extend their sentence length and add attributes to their vocabulary. Today we played a game that required students to practice using their attributes in a fun and relaxed atmosphere. This game would work well with a small group or while working 1:1 with an AAC user.

I created the game in Boardmaker Studio. If you have access to Boardmaker, you can download the interactive project here.

Students must describe which button they would like pushed using at least two attributes. Each button is different from the others, but alike enough to another that students must take care to use at least two attributes. Each button is linked to a Youtube video that is easily customizable to your students by editing the action.

Each box has a design or pattern that is different from, but similar to, other boxes.

Each box has a design or pattern that is different from, but similar to, other boxes.

I printed the array out for students to use while creating their sentences and also had students cross out each button as we pressed it to avoid repeats.

If you don’t have access to Boardmaker, you could print out the array and manually open Youtube for the video of your choice. AAC game attributes

Conversation Cards


For a student with autism, conversations are hard. For a student with autism who uses an AAC device, they are even harder. For that reason, I created a deck of twenty conversation cards. I hope that this is the first of several decks that I will create.

The free download is here. They are printable and the fronts and backs of the cards print separately. I recommend mounting the fronts on card stock, cutting them out, and then applying the backs separately. They don’t match up correctly if you try glue the pages back-to-back. I laminated mine and that works well!

The cards are divided into different categories: giving compliments, what questions, where questions, when questions, and who questions. The ‘scripts’ are color coded to indicate when it is the other person’s turn to speak. Each card has two sides.

communication cards 1

Communicator A follows the green text. Communicator B uses the red text to respond. He/she may choose one of the options on the card to respond or come up with his/her own answer.

communication cards 2

Communicator A responds to B’s after school plans with a comment. No text is presented with the picture choices to avoid echolalic responses.

These cards are good practice for students who struggle with reciprocal conversation. I introduce them 1:1 and then use them at times when typical students would engage in conversations (i.e. eating a meal in the community, leisure times, etc.).

They are ideal for low-level readers and students who use AAC with a core vocabulary. When students need to choose an answer, picture supports are provided without text so students must practice word retrieval and are less likely to just read or type out the first or last choice.

communication cards 3

Communicator A (green) asks Communicator B (red) about his favorite place to eat.

communication cards 4

Here, communicator A will need to choose their response based on B’s opinion.

The free download is a PDF file. If you would prefer to be able to edit the file and you have access to BoardMaker software, leave a comment and I’ll send you the project file!

An idea that I have seen but haven’t tried is to have a conversation box. You can place it in the middle of the table during snack or lunch and have students pick a card to talk with a classmate. After he is done, he can put the card in the slot in the box!

conversation box

Happy conversing!



Students with significant needs require that the teacher focus on functional life skills, communication, and self-advocacy. In order to practice these skills as authentically as possible, the teacher will occasionally have to create stressful situations that require student action to correct.

Listen all of y’all it’s a SABOTAGE!!!

-Beastie Boys (duh.)

Today’s sabotage is brought to you by those people who insist that sitting at work will kill you.

While students were out sensory-breaking, bathroom-ing, and otherwise occupied, I collected the classroom chairs and put them in a storage closet. When students returned, there were mixed reactions. Some seemed not to notice any difference. Others seemed amused. Still others started looking around the room as if they were searching for the missing furniture.

Not one student commented that the chairs were gone.

Not one student asked for a chair.

The rest of the day was simultaneously hilarious and sad. It was funny to watch the students try their best to follow their schedules without chairs to sit in.

photo 5

It was sad that the students were not able to find the words to ask for the object when it was out of sight.

photo 3photo 4

The students were without their chairs for five hours of the school day yesterday.

photo 1

This morning, the chairs were still gone but I primed the language by projecting several pictures (including chair) with labels on the SmartBoard. With varying amounts of prompting, all students finally asked for their chairs within the first three hours of school.

This was eye-opening for me. All students had the capacity to ask for their chair. The vocabulary was in their devices if they used one and all students had demonstrated the knowledge of the vocabulary. All students had even asked for their chairs if someone else was using it. As soon as the chairs were out of sight, however, it was a different ball game.

These two days have reminded me that I need to be sabotaging more often in order to stimulate functional communication and provide students an opportunity to advocate for what they need. Typical adults and caregivers throughout their lives should not have to be in the business of mind-reading!